Granted, they're not something you'd use that often, but a decent pair of binoculars are de rigeur for wildlife safaris, sporting events, music festivals and bird watching...
Binocular prices vary wildly from sub £25 to over two grand, but there's a valid reason for this. The most expensive glasses are precision-made instruments made from the very finest materials and assembled by skilled engineers wearing pristine white overalls in clinical environments.
There are other factors involved like magnification and objective lens size but, in a nutshell, a top quality pair of binos will almost always produce a crystal clear image with pin sharp detail right to the very edge of the lens. £700 is a good starting point.
We know that's a pretty steep starting point though, so in our round up we've got a range of more affordable binoculars, like the Bushnell Bear Grylls which start at around £40, up to the more expensive Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 Colorline which, if you know Leica, you'll know are quite expensive. You do get what you pay for with binoculars, but there's still plenty of choice here for all budgets and needs.
1. Bushnell Bear Grylls 8x25
Well if Bear Grylls likes them...
It's always the cheapest products that arrive in crimped plastic packaging that is impossible to open without a hacksaw, pliers and a vice grip. But these Bushnell bins buck the trend. At just £46 a pop, the Bear Grylls-endorsed Bushnells are surprisingly bright and sharp, and offer a nice wide field of view and decent magnification.
Of course, any binocular aficionado will easily spot the difference between these and a similarly-specified pair like the Leica Ultravids. But for the average consumer who just wants a pair of decent pocket-sized compact bins for sport spectating, holiday use and even a bit of wildlife watching, this budget model cuts the mustard. And they look rather cool, too.
2. Steiner Safari UltraSharp 10x26
Designed for a variety of outdoor activites
These rubber-ribbed compacts are designed for a variety of outdoor activities, whether it's watching your favourite football team from afar or getting closer to a hippo without being disembowelled. The Steiners are not that much sharper or brighter than the budget-priced Bushnells but they do have a smoother focus control knob and feel more comfortable in the hand.
They also come with flexible rubber eye cups that shield the eyes from side drafts and bright sunlight. The UltraSharps have 10x magnification – ample for most situations – and a fair field of view. But the jury is out on whether they're better value than the cheaper Bushnell Bear Grylls.
3. Swarovski EL 50
The Rolls Royce of binocs
Distinguished Austrian optics company Swarovski is widely considered the Rolls Royce of binocular manufacturers. These estimable eye extenders have 12x magnification and an impressively wide 50mm front element that offers an excellent field of view and exceptional brightness that is perfect for bird watching.
If you've ever wondered why some binoculars cost £25 and others like these sell for just shy of two grand, put your peepers up against these and the answer will become very clear. Cheap bins often produce a cloudy image whereas the lenses on these are so precise that the subject appears as sharp and bright as if it were three feet away. Throw in a snazzy case and you have a product every bit as desirable as the badge implies. Top dollar. Literally.
4. Pentax 7x50 Hydro
Perfect for hitting the high seas
This highly specialised 7x50 model is for the mariner who requires an integrated compass with back light, reference markings for taking navigation bearings and a waterproof rubber housing depth rated to 1.5 metres. Binoculars like these are a boon for off-shore sailing where you really do need to know how far that outcrop of rock is lest you miscalculate the distance and end up in a floundering situation. The compass is handy, too, because you never know when your GPS is going to give up the ghost. It's quite a learning curve working out how to read the imprinted one-degree graduations but, hey, you're a sailor. You probably do this stuff in your sleep.
5. Olympus Urban 8-16x25 Zoom PC 1
Comes with a zoom switch so you can get even closer to the action
There will always be occasions when using binoculars where you wish you could just reach for a zoom switch. Well now you can. The Olympus Urbans have 8 to 16x zooming capability which is very handy for those moments when you want to get even closer to the action. However, they do have a disappointingly narrow field of view (around 36Ëš) which is more akin to looking through a telescope.
Image quality isn't too bad but even with the eye cups extended, it's still difficult to get a nice circular image without your eyelashes getting in the way. A zoom function is a really neat idea, for sure, but we don't think Olympus has got it right just yet.
6. Nikon Monarch 5 20x56
Versatile bins at a keen price
These mid-size, rubber-wrapped glasses are extremely versatile and offer superior quality at a keen price. Techheads will drool over the dielectric high-reflective mirror coating and use of Extra-low Dispersion glass (ED) but all you need to know is that they perform incredibly well in all conditions.
Their 56mm objective lenses provide a massive field of view that is almost as bright as if seen with the human eye. Couple that wide angle with a whopping 20x magnification and you have one of the best-priced pair of wildlife and birdwatching bins on the market. The Monarch 5s are waterproof and come with handy flip-down lens caps and deep rubber eye caps. Nice.
7. Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 Colorline
The Ultravids ooze refinement
Next time you're at a sporting event, whip a pair of these light, colourful compact bins out of your pocket and watch surreptitiously as your fellow spectators nudge each other with a knowing sideways glance. The Ultravids ooze refinement and precision engineering, from the beautifully machined housing and pristine, razor-sharp lenses to the gorgeously tactile leather trim.
These glasses are perfect for tracking a football game from up in the gods or your favourite steed round Aintree. Their bright, wide field of view makes it easy to locate your subject while the 8x magnification and compact size makes them ideal for everyday use. The Ultravids are available in six colours, from vivid yellow to conservative brown. Chic as chic can be.
8. Canon 18x50 IS All Weather
The ideal system for long-range wildlife watching
If you find it difficult keeping your arms steady while using binoculars, consider these high-tech glasses that use Canon's tried-and-tested optical image stabilising technology to smooth out the shakes. The battery-powered IS system – similar to the one Canon uses on its DSLRs and camcorders – is comprised of a vari-angle prism that constantly makes adjustments to maintain a near perfectly still image. It's an ideal system for long-range wildlife watching and even better for marine use where a rocking boat makes it nigh impossible to keep an image steady.
The Canons have ample 18x magnification and a big, bright 50mm objective front lens that offers a wide 67Ëš field of view. Just be sure to have a couple of spare AA batteries to hand because you don't want your whale-watching exercise to end in shaky disappointment.